Contrary to the assumption that buskers resent being subjected to rules and regulations, researchers from the University of Wollongong’s Legal Intersections Research Centre (LIRC) have found most street performers are not opposed to a bit of law in their lives.

Associate Professor Julia Quilter and Professor Luke McNamara, UNSW Law and LIRC Visiting Professor, recently completed Australia’s first ever study of the operation of local council laws governing street music and other forms of busking.

Building on previous collaborative research on the criminalisation and regulation of behaviour in public places (as well as a shared love of music), Associate Professor Quilter and Professor McNamara set out to determine how successful councils have been in the tricky business of simultaneously encouraging and ‘containing’ busking.

In fieldwork conducted in Sydney and Melbourne, the researchers were surprised to find that most buskers were happy with the rules and regulations.

“While some buskers remain philosophically opposed to any sort of restrictions, most of the buskers recognised that the laws were required and were fair enough. “Some went so far as to say that they liked the rules – because they gave street performers certainty and legitimacy as a user of public space,” Associate Professor Quilter said.

She said the findings demonstrate the importance of empirical socio-legal research to inform decisions about the regulation of public places and their uses. If the study had simply examined the law ‘on the books’ it would have found that local council laws that govern busking are draconian and over the top.

“Certainly, on paper, they look that way – permit requirements, time limits, and big fines if you break the rules.

“However, by speaking directly to those affected by, and involved in enforcing, street performance rules, we found the magic ingredients of a successful regulatory model – a combination of self-regulation and gentle, education-focused enforcement – were working well.

“In talking to council officers and rangers, and buskers themselves, about how things work in practice, we found buskers generally reported feeling that their unique contributions to the urban streetscape were appreciated and supported by the rules,”Associate Professor Quilter said.

This study has implications for street music across Australia and around the world as “it shows that it is possible to introduce a permit system without stifling the capacity of street musicians and other performers to do their thing – including enlivening urban streets and malls and making a living.”

The findings have been published in the latest issues of the Melbourne University Law Review and the Journal of Musicological Research.